John Updike as Theologian of Culture: Roger's Version and the Possibility of Embodied Redemption

By Billings, J. Todd | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

John Updike as Theologian of Culture: Roger's Version and the Possibility of Embodied Redemption


Billings, J. Todd, Christianity and Literature


In an epigraph to Roger's Version, John Updike quotes Soren Kierkegaard: "O infinite majesty, even if you were not love, even if you were cold in your infinite majesty I could not cease to love you, I need something majestic to love." Not unlike Paul Tillich and other theologians of culture, Updike in Roger's Version is unsatisfied with a self-congratulatory secular narrative. As Kierkegaard says, persons need "something majestic to love." If Kierkegaard is right, a post-Christian culture will nevertheless be religious. In Roger's Version, Updike interweaves a diagnosis of contemporary American culture's "loves" with theological reflection about the Incarnation. He is aware, as Tillich was, that the "ultimate concern" for contemporary American culture has ceased to be located in the Church's proclamation. Roger's Version presents both a diagnosis of the deeply held values of the culture and a theological evaluation of the religious possibilities in a world in which religion, as Tillich says, is "without a home" (Theology of Culture 8).

What, then, is Updike's portrait of redemption and its possible manifestations in a "secular" American culture? Moreover, can the Christian story, for Updike, be culturally embodied, or is it a "spiritual" undercurrent to a secular story? These questions relate to a central theological issue in Roger's Version--the significance of the Incarnation. Updike is well aware that the Christian doctrine of God's becoming one with flesh in Christ has implications for how we view the body and sexuality. He also is aware that the Incarnation culminated in the Resurrection, a doctrine with implications for the internal versus external dualism that permeates American culture. The Incarnation and Resurrection affirm that God works in the realm of bodies; redemption involves a transformation of those bodies and their activities. In Roger's Version Updike provides a meditation on the Incarnation as he examines and describes a seemingly godless American culture.

As with Tillich, cultural critique and theological reflection can go together. Because religion is in "the totality of the human spirit," it is not confined to crumbling church walls but "is at home everywhere" (Theology of Culture 8). One thus must translate the Christian message into the operative concepts of the culture's own story. (1) In order to sustain norms that critique a culture, however, Tillich develops the notion of a latent and manifest "Spiritual Community" in his Systematic Theology. Such an entity is a telos for religious and non-religious communities that "show the power of the New Being" (153). A key characteristic is "self-surrendering love" (151), a criterion that ultimately derives from Jesus Christ but that appears in diverse communities, including those of "pagans" and "humanists" (155). (2) Of course, these are members of the latent "Spiritual Community" showing some traits of manifestation and others merely of ambiguity. This model provides a way to think through "redemption" and even "ecclesia" when the former concept arises in unexpected places, as it does in Roger's Version. For while Updike's novel does "memorialize the way we live" (Kakutani), it is more than simply a descriptive account of American culture. Roger's Version reflects on the Incarnational question of whether "spirit" can come together with "body" in a largely post-Christian Western culture.

Narrated from the imagination of Roger Lambert, a divinity professor, Roger's Version is dominated by two subjects reflected in his reading interests: "I always feel better--cleaner, revitalized--after reading theology, even poor theology, as it caresses and probes every crevice of the unknowable. Lest you take me for a goody-goody, I find kindred comfort and inspiration in pornography, the much-deplored detailed depiction of impossibly long and deep, rigid and stretchable human parts interlocking, pumping, oozing" (42). Theology--particularly early Church heresy, an academic specialization for Roger--and pornographic description dominate the text. …

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